From the Top’s kids bring classical music back to TV

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If you’re hearing From the Top for the first time, the experience quite likely goes like this: You tune to your classical music station in the middle of a virtuosic violin piece and assume you’re listening to what youʼd hear at any other time of the day — a professional musician. Not until the interview that follows the performance do you discover that the performer is actually a 16-year-old girl from Honolulu who also loves to surf.

That moment of surprise will not be a part of the new televised version of the show to be announced this month: From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall, to debut in April 2007 on PBS.

From the Top

Tim Callobre, age 10.

Seeing the young fingers fly and the teenage faces twist in concentration, however, will more than make up the difference, says Don Mischer, director and producer of the TV show, whose long resume includes producing last year’s Super Bowl halftime show and the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

“When you see these kids, that’s better than anything you can create in your mind,” he said. “The hair bobbing over their faces as they play, their toes tapping. Seeing them have fun, laugh, and talk to [Christopher O’Riley, the host]. It really adds something.”

The TV version is the latest endeavor of From the Top, a Boston-based nonprofit that encourages young classical artists through school residencies, a textbook series published by McGraw-Hill and a website, in addition to the NPR-distributed radio show.

The first 13 half-hours, produced in collaboration with Boston’s WGBH and Carnegie Hall, will be taped beginning late this month in front of live audiences at the building’s 600-seat downstairs venue, Zankel Hall. The schedule is nothing less than whirlwind, with six shows taped in a three-day period and seven more taped over three days the next week.

Although the television show will be produced separately from the radio show, the format will in many ways be familiar to longtime listeners. The radio show’s host, internationally renowned pianist Christopher O’Riley, has the same role on PBS. Both shows will rely on a combination of live performances, interviews and scriptwriting that taps into the producers’ extensive conversations with the young musicians about their backgrounds and interests.

The television show will not depart from the six-year-old radio show’s focus on classical music. Each episode will feature luminaries from that world; the TV debut will include violinist Joshua Bell, soprano Dawn Upshaw and a pretaped segment with conductor and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Occasionally, an artist from another genre, such as banjo innovator Bela Fleck, who has recorded folk and jazz as well as classical music, will perform.

Tweaked for television

There will be distinct differences between From the Top’s radio and television versions. The pace of the TV series will be faster, said Tom Voegeli, a producer and writer for both the television and the radio versions of From the Top. “We’re learning as we go along,” he said. “Obviously, we know how long the music is going to run. I think the big question is the interview. We’ll need fewer questions, and the ratio of shooting to what gets on the air is going to be tighter.”

A half-hour TV episode will feature two young artists; the hourlong radio show features five. The young performers for the radio show are chosen solely for their musical abilities. Producers of the television show are handpicking kids, mostly radio show alumni, who are not only exceptional musically but also telegenic, said Laurie Donnelly, executive producer for WGBH.

“It’s not about being cute,” she quickly elaborated. “It has nothing to do with looks. We need to make sure their personality and their music translate well to the television screen.”

Film crews will go to the hometowns of some of the young musicians to preproduce backgrounder segments. One such segment will explore the influence of the Arizona landscape on a Native American composer’s music; another will show a 12-year-old pianist conducting his gospel church choir in Dallas. “There’s a feeling that kids interested in classical music tend to come from New York and Boston,” Mischer said. “What’s amazing is that they come from states all across the country, and we have a wonderful opportunity to use video to look at the places these kids grew up.”

Another difference is that the TV show won’t adopt the comedy skits so integral to the radio version. Voegeli says the skits often rely on sound effects to create imaginary settings or situations — an obvious no-go on television. TV skits would require the young musicians to memorize lines in advance (radio lets them read from scripts) and perform to television standards, which would be a huge burden on kids already facing Carnegie Hall debuts.

The producers will still try to carry over the radio show’s humor, both in the host’s interviews and in mock game show segments like “Musical Jeopardy,” Voegeli said. But the shorter length and higher profile of the television show may mean “we will probably not be as silly as we are on radio,” he said.

Low sanctity zone

Whatever the changes made for TV, the formula essential to From the Top’s success will remain the same, according to Gerald Slavet, the program ’s co-executive producer. “It’s that combination of brilliant playing and these kids telling their stories,” he said, “along with a willingness to not put any sanctity around anything. You can have fun with the kids, poke fun at the world of classical music without doing any disrespect to anyone or dumbing anything down.”

Slavet, a real estate developer by trade, is From the Top’s energic visionary. He has a long gray beard and a past that includes managing a nonprofit theater and transforming old mill buildings in New England into senior citizen housing. His desire for a merrier, less haughty approach to classical music goes way back. The son of Russian immigrants who ran a plumbing business in Boston, Slavet did not listen to classical music until college. He started going to Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts out of a sense that he should be learning about this exalted music, but the experience intimidated him.

Years later, after he had become a real estate developer and had a family, his daughter joined the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Attending her rehearsals, Slavet watched in fascination as the famously exuberant conductor Benjamin Zander explained the repertoire to his high school musicians in terms they could understand.

Slavet began to understand the music better, too, and became active in the New England Conservatory. On a YPO tour of Latin America, Slavet was delighted to get acquainted with the diverse young musicians themselves. He started to sense that there would be tremendous potential in combining kids and classical music in front of a larger public.

From the Top

Hurley-Wales and Slavet rejected music snobbery and dropped on-air competitions.

He shared some of his thoughts with Jennifer Hurley-Wales, then the director of external affairs at the New England Conservatory, at a conservatory trustees meeting about the future of the newly renovated Jordan Hall. Hurley-Wales, who now shares the From the Top CEO/executive producer role with Slavet, came up with an idea.

“I said, ‘I love A Prairie Home Companion,’” Hurley-Wales recalled. “I’d love to do an old-fashioned radio show in Jordan Hall. It’s such an intimate space.”

Hurley-Wales and Slavet began to dream up the details and assemble staff and funding. The host they chose, O’Riley, shares their vision of a less haughty, more accessible approach to classical music. He’s recorded two albums of piano transcriptions of the music of the English rock band Radiohead and connects easily with the kids with his teasing familiarity with piano butt, violin hickeys and other challenges shared by young musicians.

For O’Riley, who has said he started playing piano in part to impress girls, it’s just as important for From the Top to offer audiences a new way of seeing talented young musicians as to give them a new way of understanding classical music. “The audience may be under the impression that classical music is only for aficionados and nerds at it 24-7,” he said. “Once that musician is also a skateboarder, they can make a personal connection to that person. … The point is that person is living a full life and classical music is one aspect of it.”

To ‘Idol’-ize or not to ‘Idol’-ize?

The earliest episodes of From the Top, six years ago, had one significant difference from today’s radio show: competition. A panel of judges decided which musician was the best, and the taping audience also voted to give a separate “audience choice” award. The producers had a practical reason to insert competition, Slavet remembered: “We worried — what’s going to keep people tuned in? Finding out who won at the end.”

The competitions were dropped in response to listeners’ complaints that “you can’t celebrate these kids if you’re saying one stands out,” Slavet said.

He said the idea to bring competition back to From the Top surfaced in early conversations with Mischer about the TV version. The idea: an American Idol for classical music. Slavet told him, “We’re celebrating these kids for who they are, not who they are opposed to someone else,” and Mischer quickly agreed.

The approach seems to work for the radio show, which premiered on 100 public radio stations in January 2000. By the following year, the show had a weekly cume of 344,000. By 2005, it had 674,000 weekly listeners on 236 stations and an annual operating budget of $960,000. This year, the From the Top nonprofit has a $2.7 million budget, with about 40 percent of its support in earned revenue such as stations’ carriage fees, road show admissions and textbook sales from a partnership with McGraw-Hill, said Hurley-Wales. The rest is a blend of individual donations, corporate and foundation funding and state grants, she said.

The television show’s 13-program budget, administered by WGBH, is $2.9 million, which has already been raised, said Slavet. Liberty Mutual, a longtime supporter of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, is the sole corporate sponsor. Other funding comes from the Bernard Osher Foundation, Carnegie Hall, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Helen and Peter Bing, WGBH itself, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Gloria Naramore Moody Foundation, the EHA Foundation, and the GESS Foundation.

Although the TV show costs three times more than the radio program to make, its budget is very tight for television, said Mischer, adding, “I often tell people we’re shooting 13 half-hours at Carnegie Hall for what it costs to shoot 2½ minutes of what we did at Super Bowl halftime with the Rolling Stones.”

He took on the project after attending a taping of the radio show in Boston. The father of a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old, both budding musicians, Mischer said he knew right away the show would be a good fit for television. “We try all the time in television to live up to our expectations and dreams,” he said. “We’re lucky if that happens 10 percent of the time. On this show, I know we’re going to walk away feeling really good about it.”

Story transcends recital

From the Top: Live from Carnegie Hall will debut in an era when “there’s been a diminishment of straight classical performances” on public television, according to Peter Rosen, an independent television producer based in New York City. For a classical music show to succeed today on public television, he said, it must go far beyond the old live concert model, which began with the conductor bowing and ended with the audience (ladies in gloves) applauding, with the viewer nodding off.

Rosen helped produce an early TV demo of From the Top in 2003 but has not been involved with the show since. He sees From the Top as fitting in with what makes biography-based programs about classical musicians and the Van Cliburn Competition, with its American Idol-like suspense, work. “From the Top has unique stories about the personal lives of these young musicians, the sacrifices they make, and what hard work is about,” he said. “These are articulate, interesting, intelligent people from every kind of background. It’s an example of the kind of show that transcends just being classical music material.”

From the Top is not the first public radio show to attempt a version for the small screen. Filmed episodes of A Prairie Home Companion aired for a while on the Disney Channel in the late 1980s. Three television pilots have been based on Whad’Ya Know?, but none went anywhere. A much-anticipated television version of This American Life will soon premiere on Showtime, but so far TV spinoffs of public radio shows don’t have a strong track record.

Slavet is not worried. He’s used to naysayers. He still remembers the program director who, after hearing Slavet’s initial proposal for the radio show, shot back, “Why would I want to hear kids perform when I can pull a Yo-Yo Ma CD off the shelf?”

He’d prefer to listen to the people who told him, around the same time, that his idea was ideal for television. Slavet recalled: “They said, ‘I want to be able to see these kids!’”

Lisa Phillips, author of Public Radio: Behind the Voices (CDS Books/Perseus, 2006), is a freelance writer based in Woodstock, N.Y., and a former public radio reporter in Iowa, Pittsburgh and upstate New York. She teaches journalism at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

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